August 29, 2022
Who’s at increased risk for skin cancer?
BY Julia Dai, M.D.
High exposure to ultraviolet rays can cause anyone to get skin cancer. But some people are more likely to develop skin cancer than others.
It’s important to understand your skin cancer risks and learn how to monitor skin changes. That way, we can catch anything suspicious early, when it’s easiest to treat.
Certain factors can increase your chances of developing skin cancer
Here are some factors that make you more likely to develop skin cancer.
1. History of blistering sunburns or frequent sun exposure. Ultraviolet light is a known carcinogen just like tobacco, so we need to be serious about protecting ourselves. Just one or two blistering sunburns as a child increases the risk of melanoma as an adult. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer.
2. Light skin, eyes or hair. Anyone can get sunburned, but if you have light or fair skin, this means you have less melanin – a pigment that gives your skin its color. You also have less melanin if you have blue or green eyes or blond or red hair.
Less melanin can cause you to sunburn more easily and more often, thus increasing your risk for skin cancer.
Staying out of the sun, covering your skin and applying sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher regularly can reduce your chances of getting a sunburn, which can cause skin damage and ultimately, skin cancer.
3. Many moles or freckles. If you have many moles or freckles, it’s important to keep an eye on them. Normal freckles and moles are typically tan or brown and are round or oval-shaped. Look out for any that are getting larger, painful, bleeding, itchy or scabby, as they could be cancerous. Use the ABCDEs of skin cancer to check your skin.
4. Personal or family history of skin cancer. Does skin cancer run in your family? If a close relative has had skin cancer, you might be at greater risk as well. A dermatologist can do a full-body screening to help you know for sure.
If you have had skin cancer before, it’s more likely that you’ll get it again. Certain rare genetic disorders and other medical conditions also can increase that risk.
5. Tanning bed use. The UV rays from tanning beds cause damage to your skin, which can increase your risk of skin cancer, including melanoma. They can often emit more UV radiation than the sun and also cause premature aging.
Check your skin for changes
Everyone should check their skin for signs of cancer. But if you think you are at an increased risk for skin cancer, see a dermatologist at least once a year for a skin screening exam.
When you check your skin for cancer, look for abnormal moles, suspicious spots and anything that looks new or out of the ordinary. Use the ABCDEs to help you spot changes that could be signs of cancer:
- Asymmetry: Take note if two sides of a mole look different from one another.
- Border: Watch for moles where the border is crooked, irregular or jagged.
- Color: Look for moles that are multi-colored. This may be a sign of skin cancer.
- Diameter: Check the diameter of moles, and get any larger than 6 millimeters wide checked out. That’s about as wide as a pencil eraser.
- Evolution: See your doctor if a mole has changed in feeling, shape or size.
Make sure you look at all areas of your body – even those that aren’t exposed to the sun. Take a good look at these areas:
- All areas of the scalp. Use a comb to expose your scalp. A hand-held mirror can help you look at areas on the back of the scalp.
- Face, especially the eyelids, nose, and ears. Look inside your mouth, including your lips, tongue and inner cheeks.
- Neck, chest and abdomen. Lift all skin folds to examine the skin underneath. Raise your arms and check the underarm areas, as well as the sides of your upper body.
- Arms and hands. Look between your fingers and fingernails.
- Back and neck. Face away from the mirror and use the hand-held mirror to examine the back of your neck and back. From there, continue down your body and inspect your buttocks and the backs of your legs.
- Genitals, legs and feet. Use the hand-held mirror to check your genitals and inner thighs. Look at the front of your legs, tops and soles of your feet and the spaces between your toes and toenails.
As you do a self-exam, you’ll become familiar with your skin and know what looks normal and what seems unusual. Let your dermatologist know about any suspicious skin changes to take a closer look.
Ask a family member or friend to check your scalp, back and other areas that may be hard to see.
You can also take pictures of your moles and compare them over time. Mark your calendar or set a reminder on your smartphone to check your skin each month.
Remember, spotting skin changes early can help us catch cancer early when it’s easiest to treat.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
TopicsSkin Cancer UV Exposure
It’s important to understand your personal skin cancer risks and how to monitor skin changes.
Julia Dai, M.D.